Manchester United won their final game of the Premier League at home against Crystal Palace – the sort of team they usually came up short against, over the course of the season, which has played a significant role in derailing their ambitions to at least finish in one of the Champions League positions.
The Red Devils have, as a result, finished outside the safety net that is top four for the second successive campaign in a row – and below their neighbours for the fourth year on the spin. But all of that will be forgotten, should they claim victory in Stockholm, which would add a second trophy to round off Jose Mourinho’s first year in charge – meaning they will have won more competitions than four of the five teams that finished above them in the league in 2016/17.
Hence, with the final in mind, Mourinho fielded a side with as many as eight changes to the side that drew at St. Mary’s – littered with young players from the reserve team in Demetri Mitchell, Joel Pereira, Scott McTominay, Axel Tuanzebe, Josh Harrop and out of those, three were handed their debuts. It was testament to their culture of bringing through young players with promise that none of them looked out-of-place alongside the likes of Pogba and Rooney – particularly one Demetri Mitchell at left back and man of the match Josh Harrop who managed to open his account for the senior team with a wonderfully taken finish on top of a hat-trick he had netted in the previous outing for the reserves.
On scoring the opener, a clearly overjoyed Harrop quipped,
“I’ve trained since I was 8 for this moment so, for it to come true today in front of everyone, I’m over the moon, speechless. As I walked through the tunnel, I was getting goosebumps on the back of my neck, I was like ‘I’m actually doing this’. I have supported United since I was born and it’s a dream to be out there playing and scoring. To do that, I couldn’t ask for any more”
Paul Pogba, who returned to the side, after mourning the death of his father, ran the show in the middle of the park, involved in both the goals – setting up the first and scoring the second himself, looked in fine fettle ahead of the big final against Ajax.
But the much awaited introduction came a little too late, when 16-year old Angel Gomes made his debut, becoming the youngest ever player to feature in the Manchester United first team since the late Duncan Edwards was brought on for captain Wayne Rooney, who knows a thing or two about bursting on to the scene at the tender age of 16.
It was a brilliantly poignant moment and United in the last few years have seen very few of those, as Old Trafford stood up and applauded in recognition of more than a decade’s worth of unbelievable moments that one of Manchester United’s greatest ever has produced, as the skipper and record goal scorer walked off the pitch, for seemingly the last time in a competitive fixture, making way for what could be the future version of himself.
Manchester United will move on from the weekend to play arguably their biggest game in recent years with all the focus Mourinho could instil, given what is at stake – a European trophy that has eluded them and a place in the Champions League group stages for next season.
If Sunday has provided a glimpse into their future which partly hinges on Wednesday’s result, then it is very likely that the fans could positively look forward to cheering the Manchester United they grew up identifying themselves and falling in love with, home and away, in the coming years.